The thread about how Edinburgh’s Victorian school architects tried to stamp out left-handedness; how German thinking and London styling heavily influenced their work, and a spot of Victorian NIMBYism

This thread was originally written and published in February 2022. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.

A previous thread looked at how Edinburgh’s school planners and public health officials utilised the design and layout of schools in the war against infectious diseases in their Crusade Against Consumption (Tuberculosis). But they were also designed to try and stamp out something else; left-handedness!

How do you try and design-out left-handedness? You make sure the classroom is lit in favour of right-handedness. To achieve this, in a time before electric or effective gas lighting, you made sure that the sun light entered the classroom to the pupil’s left, so the writing (right) hand cast no shadow on what you had just written. This was a practice copied from Germany whose school system and designs were an influential model for the development of board schools in Victorian Scotland. Left-handedness was commonly seen as a “defect” at the time and something that had to be trained/forced/beaten out of children.

The roundel of the Edinburgh School Board, education being dispensed to the young. Dean Public School, one of the ESB's first new schools. © Self
The roundel of the Edinburgh School Board, education being dispensed to the young. Dean Public School, one of the ESB’s first new schools after the 1872 act. © Self

Following the passage of the Education (Scotland) Act 1872, which made education between the ages of 5 and 13 compulsory in Scotland, the parish and burgh School Boards found themselves with big building programmes to quickly increase capacity and also replace the hodge-podge of inappropriate facilities they had inherited from their predecessors. This was particularly true in the cities where populations were rapidly growing, and Edinburgh was no different – in 1872 the Edinburgh School Board found that there were 184 day schools of all shapes, sizes and social classes within its boundaries. While the School Boards employed their own architects, the plans had to be overseen by the Scotch Education Department (as it was then called) in London who were paying the bills. Their Lordship’s Architect was Edward Robson, also architect to the (English) Education Department.

Edward R. Robson

Robson effectively had veto on school designs in Edinburgh (and Scotland) and was very influential, indeed he wrote the book on School Design in 1874; “School Architecture : being Practical Remarks on The Planning, Designing, Building, and Furnishing of School-Houses“. School architects were still finding their feet at this time as to what a school should look like, how classes should be structured and conducted, how the building should be laid out internally etc., so Robson’s opinions carried a lot of weight.

School Architecture : being Practical Remarks on The Planning, Designing, Building, and Furnishing of School-Houses

In this book he frequently refers to the German zeal for lighting classrooms from the left and recommends that it “is of such great importance as properly to have a material influence over our plans… and cannot therefore be too clearly remembered.” This wasn’t just anti-lefthandedness, there were real concerns at the time of poor eyesight developing in childhood caused by improper classroom lighting. Indeed Robson refers to a caricature of Germans as a nation of spectacle-wearers on account of their universal education.

Puck Magazine, 1900, the German American is a thinly veiled caricature of Kaiser Wilhelm, wearing enormous spectacles

The issue of how classrooms should be laid out and orientated was evolving as the way the School Boards were teaching evolved. The concept of relatively small classes of defined age groups, being taught in their own “class room” as a cohort, facing a single teacher was another German import and was just beginning to catch on with the Edinburgh School Board. Their first schools had been more influenced by the Madras System of Leith’s Dr. Andrew Bell, in which much larger classes of mixed ages sat in a large “school room” in tiered rows – where they could all see a principal teacher at the front who led a lesson, “pupil monitors” being employed to convey the lesson around the room and assist the younger or less able pupils. The first Board Schools had a mix of school rooms and class rooms, but this soon gave way to more and smaller class rooms; the natural lighting of which was something of an architectural challenge.

Dr. Bell's School in Leith. Bell's original school room is the part to the front, the Leith School Board later added a large extension of class rooms to the rear after 1872. CC-by-SA 3.0 Kim Traynor
Dr. Bell’s School in Leith. Bell’s original school room is the part to the front, the Leith School Board later added a large extension of class rooms to the rear after 1872. CC-by-SA 3.0 Kim Traynor

In 1886, Robson exercised his powers and stepped in to order changes to the plans of the new London Street School (now St. Mary’s R.C.) by Robert Wilson, the School Board’s architect, to ensure the “proper” lighting of the classrooms to his satisfaction.

London Street School (now St. Mary's RC Primary)
London Street School (now St. Mary’s RC Primary)

And the following year, Robert Wilson was summoned to Robson’s desk in London to discuss Torphichen Street school as his initial plans had classrooms lit from the right!

Former Torphicen Street School, CC-by-SA 2.0 M J Richardson
Former Torphicen Street School, CC-by-SA 2.0 M J Richardson

Note the similarities between the two schools, both in an Italianate style which is relatively unusual in Edinburgh, the central block and the 3 bays on each side are almost identical, as are the right and left-most two bays with the entrance doors. Torphicen Street however wraps around on its irregular plot and has ornamental towers but lacks the pediment-topped 3 bays on either side of the entrances. The central, second floor room has very small windows; this is because it was a room for the teaching of the practical skills of drawing and sewing, and was therefore lit from above by skylights.

While Robson at the Scotch Education Department dictated many things about layout, it was the School Board’s architects who were responsible for the exterior style. Such was the initial workload – 5 new schools were commissioned in 1874, with more in quick succession – that the work was split between Robert Wilson and the practice of William Lambie Moffatt. This initial batch of schools were all given a suitably Victorian collegiate gothic style; the sort of thing the paymasters on the School Board would have wanted – they were also keen to avoid the richly decorated Jacobean style of the schools they had inherited from the Heriot Trust. Wilson’s style was much more restrained than Lambie Moffat’s but both suffered from being overly-ecclesiastical in their influence.

Robert Wilson’s Dean Public School.
Lambie Moffat's Bristo Public School. © Edinburgh City Libraries
Lambie Moffat’s Bristo Public School. © Edinburgh City Libraries

Exceptions were made to this style at Castle Hill and Milton House (in the Canongate) schools in the Old Town. These were given a vernacular Scottish Baronial style by Robert Wilson in keeping with their historic surroundings. Crow-stepped gables topped with decorative finials, slender chimney stacks and corner ornamentation was the order of the day.

Castle Hill Public School by Wilson
Milton House / Canongate Public School, by Wilson

The problem with this early style was that it was very important to the influential Edward R. Robson that schools should appear secular in nature; eduction had been wrested from the grip of “the clergyman” and into the hands of “the lawyer“. These were structures in which “the teaching of Dogma was strictly forbidden” and in Robson’s opinion, schools should be instantly recognisable as such, just like churches were. These first examples from the ESB however were heavily influenced by church architecture with their pointed gothic windows, buttresses and decorated corner towers – particularly those of Lambie Moffat.

Wilson however was a very capable and flexible architect, and having worked in London for 10 years, he began altering the designs of Edinburgh’s board schools in the 1880s to fit more with the theories of his mentor, Robson. As a result, the city’s next batch of schools were in a Queen Anne style and took on a very London-like and secular appearance. A typical later Wilson school is Broughton and you can really see the London influence if you put it alongside a typical Robson school like Primrose Hill. The big exception being the use of traditional Scottish stone for the facade; Scotland wasn’t yet ready for public buildings finished in brick!

Broughton Public School, by Wilson. CC-by-SA StephenCDickson
Broughton Public School, by Wilson. CC-by-SA StephenCDickson

Primrose Hill School, by Robson
Primrose Hill School, by Robson

Broughton school, and its contemporaries such as Bruntsfield, were further influenced by contemporary English and London thinking on school layouts and adopted a “central hall” system, whereby the classrooms were arranged around a large central hall which could be used by the headmaster to give group lessons.

Johnson Street School in Stepney, 1881

A very nice visual juxtaposition of the evolution of design and appearance in ESB schools in a short period of time can be seen from the viewpoint of Drummond Street. Robert Wilson designed South Bridge Public School (left) in 1885, very much in the collegiate gothic style of the 1870s – but it was the first ESB school with class rooms only and no school room. On its right and by the same architect is Drummond Street School, built just 10 years later on London lines. It had a central hall and on the exterior finished in a decorative, very “un-Scottish”, Queen Anne style. Drummond Street was built as an infant department, to ease crowding at South Bridge, which became the elementary department.

South Bridge Public School (l) and Drummond Street Infant School (r), both by Robert Wilson
Drummond Street Infant School, heavily London-influenced inside and out. Even the crowsteps on the gables don’t look Scottish.
South Bridge Public School, very much in the collegiate gothic style of the 1870s, but with a modern arrangement of rooms (for 1885) inside
South Bridge Public School, very much in the collegiate gothic style of the 1870s, but with a modern arrangement of rooms (for 1885) inside

Wilson’s last school, before his death during its construction in 1901, was at Craiglockhart, and again the style was evolving; moving back towards something a bit more Classical like London Street from 20 years before. The influence of his assistant, James Carfrae – who would take over the role of ESB house architect – may also have been important.

Craiglockhart Primary School. On the central hall model, but less gaudy than Drummond Street, and a return to a more Classical style. The work was finished by James Carfrae

There is a particular anomaly in Wilson’s catalogue of Edinburgh Schools, that of South Morningside School. Although Wilson was the architect, his usual employer the ESB was not the client; it was instead built for the St. Cuthbert’s School Board; the school boards outside of the city were on parish lines until 1893 and South Morningside was just over the city boundary of the the Jordan Burn. For this reason, although it looks just like its ESB contemporaries, it lacks the roundel of the wise lady dispensing education to a child.

South Morningside school; looks every bit like an ESB design, but all is not quite what meets the eye
South Morningside school; looks every bit like an ESB design, but all is not quite what meets the eye

But why was a school for the Edinburgh suburb of Morningside built over the city boundary on the “wrong side of the train tracks?” This was because of a long campaign by the feuars and residents of Morningside to avoid having the school more centrally located in the district and affecting their property values. The ESB had wanted to build a school in their territory since 1887 but was thwarted by a “committee of apprehensive feuars” who pointed out that the feus were for “housing of a superior class” and the school would “destroy the quiet suburban character” of the area. In an effective act of Victorian NIMBYism, the committee wrote screeds of green ink to the press and lobbied the Scotch Education Committee, who made it be known they would put the school to a public enquiry if the ESB tried to build it. The needs of the neighbourhood were instead met by St. Cuthbert’s Parish, who were outwith the influence of the Morningside agitators.

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